Jack Nicklaus still sharp at 80 years old

Published 5:02 pm Thursday, January 30, 2020

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With Jack Nicklaus, the Great Champion, turning 80, I am moved to reflect on his exalted career and also on his extraordinary person.  His record of 18 major championships confirms to most that he was golf’s greatest champion. 

The distinguishing characteristic that sets him apart is his exceptional mental acuity and inquiring mind.  He acquired the nickname on the tour years ago as “The Great Carnac.”    

His routine for years, when preparing for a major, was to spend a few days at the championship venue a few weeks prior to playing the tournament. This meant that he would practice at Augusta in mid to late March.   

I recall one practice round in which he engaged in conversation with a member of the Augusta National grounds crew, asking detailed questions about insecticides, when to apply and about any side effects if there were any.  Go to dinner with him and he might offer an insight into a rare subject or he may inform you about the feeding habits of the Black Marlin one of which is now a trophy mount that hangs in the breezeway from the back of his house to his guest cottage.

Nobody who won the Par 3 Tournament on Wednesday has ever won the Masters although it could have happened in 1990 when Ray Floyd, the Par 3 champion, appeared to be the first until he, un-Ray-Floyd-like, bogeyed No. 17 to allow Nick Faldo to get into a playoff and then, as Floyd would say, “gave him the tournament” by hitting his second shot into the pond at No. 11 in a playoff.

Jack never admitted to being superstitious, but it is a fact, he never played the Par 3 until after he retired from the tour.  Now he trumpets the ace scored by his grandson, G. T. at the final hole of the little course last spring, his favorite Masters memory — this coming from a man who has won the Masters six times. 

During his prime years on tour, he would often fly home from tournaments to catch his daughter Nan playing volleyball or one of his boys competing in football, basketball, lacrosse or golf. As his grandchildren aged, his schedule became less intense but there is plenty of competition among his 22 grandchildren to make it a full time job to catch all their events.   He had an almost perfect record in attending his children’s sporting events and an impressive record for showing up for the games and matches of his grandchildren.   

With Nick O’Leary (son of Nan, the Nicklaus’ only daughter) playing at Florida State and winning a national championship ring in 2014, Jack made most of Nick’s games.   When Nan played volleyball at Georgia, Jack and Barbara came to Athens to see their daughter compete.

When she was graduated from UGA, the Nicklaus’s were our house guests. Jack had unending fun meeting and interacting with Nan’s friends while we cooked Bubba burgers on the grill.   

After Nan enrolled at Georgia, and her parents brought her to campus, we took Jack and Barbara to the airport for their departure flight home. My wife spotted Jack wiping abundant tears from his checks as he walked up the ladder into his jet.  Just like the other fathers who left their daughters that first time when they went off to college.

One weekend when he was visiting Nan in Athens, we flew over to Augusta where he was managing design work for the 13th hole. His attention to detail was quickly noted. His instructions to the golf course superintendent were succinct and graphic.

Retirement doesn’t mean that he is slowing down.  He has the bold and ambitious plan of raising, with Barbara, $100 million dollars for children’s hospital charities.  There will still be time for corporate golf and fishing for permit in the Bahamas and reading South African author Wilbur Smith’s latest novel.  Inactivity for Jack Nicklaus would be worse than being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

One special memory that will always be treasured.  There was the time we visited him at his home in early January in North Palm Beach, Florida, where he hosts a tennis tournament for family and friends.  He calls it “Wimbledon East.” 

For years, he expected to win his own tennis tournament and he would compete with the hardest edge.  (He is still at it, choosing former Georgia tennis player George Bezecny as his partner for doubles matches).

At the end of a session one day of his tennis tournament, I complimented him on the well maintained and kempt grass courts in his back yard. 

“We have these courts here,” Jack said.  “Across the street, we have two ‘Seashore Paspalum’ courts.” 

I nodded, but he noticed I was not sure what that meant.

“You do know what ‘Seashore Paspalum,’ is don’t you?”  I confessed that I did not.  “Well,” he chided.  “You ought to.   It is a grass which can be irrigated with salt water.  It was developed by two University of Georgia scientists.”